MIAMI – Tiger Woods has summoned someone even more significant than swing coach Hank Haney to help facilitate his wildly anticipated comeback.
Two sources in the golf community told The New York Post that Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to Pres. George W. Bush and the man who was brought in to help repair the steroid-shattered image of Mark McGwire, has been huddling with Woods, plotting a strategy for his return to golf -- at the Arnold Palmer Invitational starting March 25 at Bay Hill in Orlando.
"They were in his living room this week going over a strategy for how to handle Bay Hill in two weeks," one source said.
The other source told The Post, "I would be shocked if he didn't play the Arnold Palmer."
Palmer himself reportedly has told some close confidants that Woods is definitely playing Bay Hill. Quietly, the people running the tournament are preparing for a larger-than-usual media crush.
Meanwhile, Mark O'Meara, Woods' longtime friend and neighbor, told Golf Channel Wednesday that he "wouldn't be surprised" to see Woods make his anticipated return at the Tavistock Cup, a made-for-TV inter-club event on March 22-23 at Isleworth, Woods' home course outside of Orlando.
O'Meara said the two-day exhibition matches might be a "nice way" for Woods to "ease back into the whole situation."
"It's been a rough road the last three or four months in Tiger's life and his family's life," O'Meara said. "It's a very difficult situation. Golf is what Tiger does, and possibly part of the healing process is to get back at it."
It appears Fleischer is a big part of helping that healing process.
Knowing he eventually has to stand before everyone publicly and take questions -- something he didn't do in that bizarrely orchestrated ramble on Feb. 19 -- is why Woods sought out the advice of Fleischer, who in 2008 formed Ari Fleischer Sports Communications.
The firm, which focuses on crisis response and control, is a joint venture with IMG Sports & Entertainment. Woods is represented by IMG.
Several calls to Fleischer went unreturned and messages left for Mark Steinberg, Woods' personal IMG advisor, also went unanswered.
Fleischer, who served as presidential press secretary from January 2001 to July 2003 before leaving for a career as a consultant, worked with McGwire after the disgraced slugger had gone into hiding following his embarrassing refusal to answer questions about his steroid use before a congressional committee in 2005.
Before his recent public admission to using steroids, necessitated in part by his return to the Cardinals as a hitting instructor, McGwire was advised by Fleischer.
The National Football League and Major League Baseball also are among Fleischer's high-profile clients. He advised the Packers in 2008 on how to deal with the fallout from their breakup with Brett Favre, and he's worked with college football's BCS on how to repair an image that has been ridiculed.